BY DEMORRIS A. LEE
EAST LAKE — Kelli Maida's teeth and tongue were all red, not exactly the makings of a good first impression.
It was eight years ago and she had just eaten a Blow Pop at an East Lake recreation football game, where her father was coaching. Nevertheless, a cheerleading coach, Kelly Paige, had taken notice of the tomboy with a Blow Pop glow when they first met.
"I looked at her and said, 'This girl is really, really special,' " Paige said. "She was 14 and already 5 feet, 9 inches. She was a beautiful girl."
A talent agent, Paige asked Maida to consider becoming a model.
Maida wanted no part in it. She played soccer and softball and became a cheerleader only because that was the closest she could get to the football field.
"My dad wouldn't let me play," Maida said, with a laugh. "I didn't want to be a model. I hated taking pictures. I was a complete tomboy."
But with a little convincing, Maida tried modeling. And now at age 22, she's traveling the world, with a career that many young women only dream about.
Maida has been on the cover of at least seven magazines, including Cosmopolitan and Bride. Her face also has appeared in magazines in South America, Europe and Japan.
Last week, she was in New York for a photo shoot for Mary Kay cosmetics. Saturday, she flew to California, where she will be in a commercial for Olay skin care products.
"She is turning into a campaign girl, and that's the most lucrative you can become," said Paige, the owner of Tampa's Level Model and Talent Management, and an East Lake resident who is still Maida's agent. "That's every model's goal, to become a campaign girl."
Maida sees the Olay gig a tad differently.
"I hate speaking in front of people," she said with a chuckle as she sat in front of the sparkling Christmas tree at her family's East Lake home. "Now, I have lines that I have to say. I prefer not speaking. That's still new to me."
Like modeling, speaking lines will have to grow on Maida.
At age 16, it was suggested she move to New York City. She refused.
After that, Maida was offered a big contract to quit high school and move to Miami and model. She would be homeschooled. Again, she declined.
"I loved high school and my friends," Maida said. "I know there is a small window of opportunity for modeling, but the window is even smaller for those high school years."
Maida graduated from East Lake High in 2007. Most of the students didn't know she was a model.
"I was embarrassed at first," Maida said. "I had never met a model before. I didn't know what to think and I didn't know what people would think of me. I didn't want them to think different of me."
When Maida was still in high school, Paige participated in the Great American Teach-in to discuss her job as a talent agent. As an example, she brought photos of Maida.
"Nobody knew that she was becoming this big international model until they saw those pictures," Paige said. "They had no idea. She didn't get caught up in all the glamor."
A bit shy, Maida was tempted to back out of being on East Lake High's prom court her senior year. It's a good thing she didn't. She was named prom queen.
"I have the same friends I had in high school," Maida said. "I have the same boyfriend and I just love being home."
Maida was accepted to the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of South Florida. But her parents, Rick and Dianne Maida, suggested that she give modeling a try full time for a year. With some hesitation, she did. At age 18, she moved to Miami.
About that time, she bought her first pair of high heels.
"I never wore high heels," Maida said, laughing. "My mom would make me practice walking in them around the house."
Now, in addition to Paige's agency, Maida works with Next Model Management in Miami and New York Model Management in New York.
Maida is in the online program at St. Petersburg College, where she is working to earn a bachelor's degree in education. She wants to teach kindergarten when her modeling career ends.
Maida politely declines to say how much money she makes.
She just bought a used Lexus, but there are no shopping sprees or purchases of designer jeans.
"I do very well for myself, and it's more than I've ever expected for someone my age," she said. "I'm very blessed."
The youngest of four children, Maida tries to get to East Lake at least one weekend a month.
Her turtle "Roosterfer," purchased as a gift by her brother eight years ago, the pet bird and the rabbit greet her. She goes fishing with her dad.
"One of my rules is my dad has to be able to see anything that I do," Maida said of her modeling career. "(And) I'm very, very blessed to be able to do what I'm doing and to have the family and friends that I have."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174.